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Review - "Sky Burial: New and Selected Poems" by Peter Gizzi

Alan Baker

"Sky Burial: New and Selected Poems", Peter Gizzi. Pub. Carcanet. £11.99

This book starts with a tour-de-force of new work; a series of remarkable poems, including the title-poem of Gizzi’s forthcoming collection, due this autumn; "Now It's Dark" is a searingly personal poem, and at the same time a profoundly literary one:

       When my brother lost his voice I lost my childhood
             lost the sun over sand in some place I can't 

       in Rhode Island summer

Earlier in the same poem, we have:

       Reader, if I could I would bring back for you
           a sun made in crayon.
       A sun unformed in a paper sky.

The direct address to the reader, in an echo of the nineteenth century novel, and the foregrounding of the artifice of poetry ("a paper sky") is combined with very personal mode in a striking combination that Gizzi has prepared the ground for in an exemplary career. The poem is spoken by a first-person narrator who is grief-stricken and searching for meaning, but who, at the same time, is a literary construct being used to investigate the concept of self-in-poetry (“Being human I know that paper makes my mind”). The two strands come together in some remarkable writing:

       When my brother could no longer speak
            I said Tommy I got this
       even if I don’t want this, I’ll sing for you.

It’s an outstanding piece of work, and there’s a sense in which it encapsulates Gizzi’s achievement as a lyric poet, as the strategies and concerns found in it can be traced throughout his career.

In 1992 Peter Gizzi published his first full-length collection, "Periplum", and the long sequence "Music for Airports", after the Brian Eno album. Both works were under the influence of Language Poetry. In "Periplum", there are a series of poems of that title, seven in total, the first of which is included in this selection. Periplum is a word used by Ezra Pound in The Cantos to refer to a sea journey, derived from the Latin ‘periplus’, meaning a manuscript listing ports and coastal landmarks to help seafarers find their way. These poems express a need to find a way, through life, through perception, by a speaker who is often struggling to do so in world of uncertainty:

       A church tower is good for reference
       but losing ground

The speaker accepts that they are lost, but embraces the lostness:

       satellites orbiting the earth
       track a true arc

       but perhaps too grand
       for everyday distances

       And never mind about the bewilderment

       "I'm at sea"

As if the poetry is a map - a periplum - of perception and thought, it is wrestling with how to process experience and how to express that processing in lyric poetry, aware that poetry, and language itself, can get in the way of experience, or can replace direct perception. At the same time, in the poem "Periplum", the poet is referencing one of his most important forbears and placing his work firmly in the line of modernism. The collection "Artificial Heart" (1998), praised by Marjorie Perloff, contains two significant long poems (long poems and sequences from this point on become increasingly important in his work), "Pierced" and "Ledger Domain"; the latter being originally published as a chapbook with artwork by Trevor Winkfield. Both poems are in a sense, poetry about poetry, investigating types of language, including the language of fable and folk tale.

After mentioning Trevor Winkfield I should add that this short review can’t encompass Gizzi’s extensive allegiances with contemporary poets, artists and musicians, some of which were realised by his editorship of the seminal magazine “o-blek”, which he founded with Connell McGrath in 1987. He also edited the Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer and co-edited Spicer’s Collected Poems.

In 2003, "Some Values of Landscape and Weather" was published. This was the first of four major books of poetry to date, and the first book in the mature phase of Gizzi's work. Peter Riley said that this collection contains "at least a dozen poems of outstanding achievement". One of them is "History of the Lyric", a mysterious and haunting sequence:

       they are right next to you
       in the lanes, hugging a shoulder


       they twitter in rafters
       calling down to your mess

       in rays, crescents

       the white curled backs
       of snapshots tucked in a frame

       eyes of the dead

The sequence has an epigraph by WS Graham, from this point on a poet important to Gizzi, indicating its relation to British poetry. The presences who “twitter in the rafters” are at one level the poets of the British tradition, as indicated by the archaisms and the echoes of Romanticism in the sequence. This poem is also the start of a quest that would engage Gizzi for the rest of his career; the attempt to win back the lyric as a viable form in post-modern poetry. This can only be done by making the poetry tentative, questioning and uncertain, and by "making new" the conventions of Romanticism. It also requires a musical ability with language. "History of the Lyric" is characteristic of Gizzi's playful verbal music.

       they are closer than comfort
       closer than night breaking

       over the mountain face

       empurpled, its silhouette
       ragged, silver

       unquantifiable in pixie dusk

After the somewhat plainer, at times hermetic, poems in his first two collections, the poems in "Some Values of Landscape and Weather" have a gorgeous sensuality, a richness of language and the pleasure in verbal music that graces Gizzi's poetry from this book onward. One of the significant achievements of his later books is that this lyricism is expressed in the language of everyday speech and the American vernacular.

       That I saw a blood-orange ball caught
           out my window.
       That I'm listening to light and it said time.
       I'm listening to time, it says, ha.
       You need to be howling at bloody torn space.
       Need to be spooked out of your hiding hole
         and its glowing mess.

       (from “When Orbital Proximity Feels Creepy”)

"Some Values of Landscape and Weather" also contains the poem "Revival", an elegy for Gregory Corso, which ironically rejects European heritage (“I never once thought of My Last Duchess”). ”Revival” is, like Alice Notley’s “Tonight, the States”, a poem trying to grasp what America is, in a tradition running from Whitman through to The Beats. At one level it’s a political poem (“It was war. A Capital experience!”), but Gizzi is a close reader of George Oppen and therefore aware of the difficulties inherent in explicitly political poetry. The politics is implied. As David Herd has pointed out, the title poem of “Some Values of Landscape and Weather” provides a “rich description of the post-industrial civic environment”, acknowledging a world of “statehouses, prison, freeways etc”.

Gizzi teaches in Amherst, and Emily Dickinson is central to his poetry; he shares her speed of movement, linguistic innovation, her sense of spiritual awe and her constant questioning. Dickinson is the touchstone, but his poetry embraces the whole American tradition, referencing Nathanial Hawthorne, Harold Frederic, Emerson and others; his poem "A True discourse on Power" alludes to the tract "A True discourse on the State of Virginia" written by colonist Ralph Hamor in 1615. Which is not to say the poetry is in the least scholarly or heavy; it turns this learning into song, "gathering from the air a live tradition", as Ben Lerner writes on the cover, quoting Pound. At times, the writing is sensual, rather than literary, as in the poem “Pretty Sweety”:

       This is a strange view
       sunlight and furlight and a mouth

       busy with nature
       a mouth busy with its bloom

       a mouth blooming loveliness

It’s lines like these that Eileen Myles might have had in mind when she talks of Gizzi’s work as “big ideas buttressed by fragility… I’d call it girly. Even post gender.” And its literariness is light, almost unnoticeable. Take the poem "Saturday And Its Festooned Potential", from "The Outernationale", (at a recent reading in Nottingham Gizzi said that it was a dedicated to Barbara Guest) which is typical of Gizzi's mature style:

       When the mind is opened forth
       by a gentle tink tink
       or light speckled
       and whooping in the periphery

       When light whooping
       and speckled is most pleasing
       to a body at rest

This extract, indeed, the whole poem, is, with typical lightness of touch, alluding to Wallace Stevens' poem "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" ("Proud of the novelties of the sublime, / Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk"), Stevens being another poet with whom Gizzi conducts a dialogue throughout his work.

Gizzi's fifth collection of poems, "Threshold Songs", was published in 2011. The epigraph for the collection is "for Robert, for Mother, for Mike / called back". The latter phrase, "called back" is found on Emily Dickinson's tombstone. So, there are personal losses here, and the book is elegiac. But the poems are in no way confessional; they try, rather, to elegise while questioning whether poetic elegy is possible in the twenty-first century. Take the questioning of the lyric voice in “Hypostasis & the New Year":

       For why am I afraid to sing
       The fundamental shape of awe

This is echoed in the poem “The Growing Edge” where there’s an awareness of poetic language as a set of signs, but which might offer a way into meaningful communication, might ‘almost successfully’ get through; the poem “…is a spike / in the air / a distant thrum / you call singing”. Gizzi is aware that, at one level, every poem is a closed and self-referential language-object; but he's also aware that it has the potential to break out as song, elegy, lyric or prayer. The poetry walks a tightrope between these two things and is so effective because it acknowledges this paradox at the heart of language. Because the poetry has this self-consciousness and because it engages with the difficulties inherent in lyric expression, moments of personal elegy have great integrity. From "Analemma":

       That I came back to live
       in the region both
       my parents died into
       if I have nothing else
       I have this and
       it's not morbid
       to think this way
       I know I'll be there
       to join them soon
       it's ok to think this way
       why shouldn't I
       whose gonna say I shouldn't?

Apart from the new poems, the most recent work featured in this Selection is from the book "Archeophonics”. In the title poem, we have:

       I'm just visiting this voice
       I'm just visiting the molecular structures
         that say what I'm saying

Voice and its relation to self, as these lines imply, is central to "Archeophonics", as it is to the whole of Gizzi’s work. He’s conducting an ongoing exploration of the poetic self, which appears in his poetry as “tainted with all the intensity, artifice, and contingency of the poetic process”.(4)  The word "archeophonics", coined by Gizzi, means the recovery of lost sound, the sonic equivalent of archaeology. The investigation of "the old language" is a concern of the whole collection, including the two sequences "Field Recordings" and "A Winding sheet for Summer". In the first of these there is an interrogation of inherited language, “the old language / with its lance and greaves/ … and hammered vowels”. In "A Winding Sheet for Summer" there is a similar investigation, here focussing on the poetic self and its relation to this "old language":

       I built my life out of what was left of me.
       Sky and its procedures.
       A romanticism of clouds, trees, pale crenellations,
         and poetry.

There is a large element of spiritual questioning in Gizzi’s work, and moments of transcendence. He has spoken about how hearing the Catholic mass, in Latin, as a child made him aware that the sound of language has a meaning of its own, before literal meaning is grasped. But typically, spirituality is won at the expense of certainty, and both the question, and the conditional clause, are characteristic modes of expression, as in the poem “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me” (“if rain falls sidelong in the platz … / If enumerations of the fall / and if falling, cities rocked…”). In the poem “Release the Darkness to New Lichen”, we have a typical glimpsed epiphany:

       I saw the frill of light today
       walking on the path

Earlier in the same poem, the poetic self appears to need “the warmth of the wood” to find itself “dissolving”:

       Otherwise it is all otherwise
       I’m lost, did I say that

In a similar manner, we have the poem “Bardo” which combines disavowals (“No more Novalis… // No Juan de la Cruz…”) with a series of questionings amounting to a longing for meaning (“I spent my life / in a  lone mechanical whine … what piece of self is hiding there”). The title bardo could be a pun on “bard” but is also the term used in Tibetan Buddhism for “an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth”. At the end of “Bardo” meaning and affirmation are reached for through the medium of language:

       And if I say words
       will you know them?

       Is there world?
       Are they still calling it that?

Last year the first critical work on Peter Gizzi's poetry was published; "In The Air" (pub. Wesleyan) contains a series of essays by distinguished poets and critics; and now we have this wonderful retrospective of over three decades of his work. There are several poems which, as a long-time reader of Gizzi, I rate highly, but which are not included in this volume; this isn't a shortcoming of the selection, but an indication of the richness of Gizzi’s oeuvre. And it’s good to have the new work, such as the remarkable poem “Now It’s Dark”, mentioned at the start of this review, in which the concerns evident throughout Gizzi’s poetry can be traced. There is a collection due out in October, and from the new poems in this selection it’s clear that he’s continuing his questioning and celebration of poetic language in poetry which, even as it faces up to the existential questions of human existence, delights with its combination of delicacy, toughness and lyric beauty.


1.    Peter Riley: “Review of ‘Some Values of Landscape and Weather”.
        PN Review no. 158 (Volume 30 no.6), July-August 2004.

2.    Marjorie Perloff: “Review of ‘Artificial Heart’.
        Boston Book Review, 5-6 (August 1998): 34-35.

3.    Amanda Petrusich. "Peter Gizzi, a Poet of Sound and Time".
        The New Yorker, October 17, 2016

4.    Kaspar Bartczak, “The Artifice of Personhood and the Poetics
        of Plenitude in Peter Gizzi’s ‘Archeophonics’”.
        ‘In The Air: Essays on the Poetry of Peter Gizzi’.

5.    David Herd “The Lyrical Voice as Ethical Medium”.
        ‘In The Air: Essays on the Poetry of Peter Gizzi’.

copyright © Alan Baker, 2020

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